WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
The world’s most powerful genetic technology – one that could cure disease, and at the same time wipe out entire species in the blink of an eye – has just been green lighted by the UN, and now the genies about to come out of the bottle.
Of all the potentially apocalyptic technologies scientists have come up with recently the gene drive is easily one of the most disturbing and powerful. It could also be argued, quite easily, that in the wrong hands it’s the ultimate bioweapon – silent, almost undetectable and 100 percent deadly.
Most people haven’t heard of the gene drive. It’s a type of tool, or technology, depending on how you look at it, that lets scientists use genetic engineering techniques to override nature’s natural reproduction process and introduce new genetic traits into an entire species, and it can be applied to every DNA based organism. That’s every animal, every plant – and every human.
At one end of the spectrum the gene drive can be used for great good, for example, it can be used to permanently eliminate hereditary diseases from a family lineage, but at the other end of the spectrum it can be used to change the genetic make up of an entire species and wipe it out – an extinction switch. And if you think that the technology is still just theory then I’m sorry to disappoint you.
First trialled in 2015 on Yellow Fruit Flies the technology was most recently used by scientists at the University College of London to create an insect that they, and their peers, cheerily call the “Apocalypse mosquito.” In short it’s a mosquito that if it was released into the wild would wipe out its entire species within just ten generations – in under a year.
As a consequence it’s not hard to imagine how in the wrong hands, or without the right controls, this incredibly powerful technology could get out of hand very, very quickly. Imagine, for example, terrorists using gene drive technology to pass down an apocalypse mosquito like extinction gene for people who display a particular genetic trait – eye colour, hair colour, you name it – identifying “tribes” based on just their gene type was something that was made possible by the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003. Genocide on tap. And because the technology is so hard to detect, and because of the way it works, noone would be any the wiser until it was too late and an entire human tribe had “silently” been wiped out.
The gene drive is horrifying and incredible yet at the same time and its promise is limitless so it’s with little wonder that its stirring furvoured debate. Consequently, throughout 2015 and 2016 environmentalists, and hundreds of their fellow experts in arms, unnerved by the fact that noone knows what the risks involved in using the technology are, and fearful about how private companies and governments would exploit it to selectively wipe out “unpopular” species, such as those that carry disease or that are invasive, which includes anything from mosquitos to wasps, rats, cane toads and Lionfish, have been campaigning hard to get the technology banned before it’s too late.
Last week the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity in Mexico, world governments rejected calls for a global moratorium on gene drives. Groups such Friends of the Earth and the Council for Responsible Genetics have called gene drive “gene extinction technology,” arguing that scientists “propose to use extinction as a deliberate tool, in direct contradiction to the moral purpose of conservation organizations, which is to protect life on earth.”
At the UN meeting, some countries supported the moratorium, which asked for a halt on all research proposals using gene drive technology. The UN’s final agreement instead called for caution in field-testing the products of synthetic biology and better efforts to assess potential risk.
Some scientists, though, have already begun urging peers to recognise the potential disasters that gene drive technology could precipitate. MIT synthetic biologist Kevin Esvelt, for example, is working to convince both fellow scientists and research journals to publish research plans before studies are begun, allowing a broad community of scientists to pitch in and assess the potential risk.
In 2014 Esvelt and his colleagues were the first to suggest that the revolutionary gene editing technology CRISPR could be used to turn the theory of a gene drive into reality but he and his colleagues were horrified in 2015 when other scientists put that suggestion to the test and used it to create a gene drive in a yellow fruit fly which, if it had been released into the wild would have wiped out their entire population. It didn’t help that not only did the team responsible for creating the “apocalypse” yellow fruit fly didn’t discuss the precautions necessary when working with gene drives but they also called their paper “The mutagenic chain reaction.”
As a result, and since 2015 a growing cadre of scientists have called for caution and openness, particularly when it comes to experiments that might impact the public. Researchers, in part driven by the fear of the potential impact of a lab created global disaster as well as a highly public accident that might cause public outrage and all research to cease, are trying to design new gene drive techniques that could help mitigate concerns by limiting any potential long term effects.
Part of the reason people are freaking out is how fast the technology has progressed. The last time that the UN’s Convention on Biodiversity met in 2014 gene drives were still theoretical but since then they’ve been successfully tested in yeast, fruit flies and most recently mosquitoes.
Historically, even if scientists accidentally released some kind of horrible mutant man eating fruit fly into the wild – laugh but it’s possible – after a few generations of breeding nature would have eventually killed off those mutant traits and if this man eating fly mated with a wild fly, natural selection would likely weed out that man eating gene in favour of a dietary preference that has over time evolved to help the fly best survive its natural habitat. The gene drive though would override nature’s emergency brakes and go full speed ahead filling the world with flesh eating pests.
“The fast moving nature of this field is both encouraging and a point of great concern,” said the federal National Academies of Sciences in a report assessing the risks of gene drive technology.
The report, like the UN, asked that scientists take heed of “social, environmental, legal, and ethical considerations” to develop the technology responsibly. But it ultimately concluded that the potential benefits are too great to not proceed with “carefully controlled field trials.”
Environmental groups are concerned that scientists may go ahead with field trials before understanding the potential risks of gene drive. Scientists, on the other hand, are concerned that we may never understand the full benefits or risks of gene drive if research were to grind to a halt.
The middle ground, it seems, is greater transparency.
“If we’re going to develop proper safeguards for gene drives or other powerful technologies of this type,” said Esvelt, “we need to fix a greater problem – the closed door nature of science.”